Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

If not  exactly burying the lede, this documentary holds off on a highly telling detail until about the halfway point. It turns out Israeli thesps Hanna Maron and Asaf Dayan could have been in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, were it not for injuries they both suffered during a plane hijacking. To put things into perspective, the mass murder at the 1972 Munich Olympics were committed less than a year after the film released. The musical based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories and the film that adapted it still have a great deal of relevance. Director Daniel Raim and his co-writer-co-producer Michael Sragow document its tricky adaptation process and lasting legacy in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, which opens Friday in New York.

When it first opened on Broadway, conventional wisdom expected
Fiddler to flop. Instead, audiences readily identified with its themes of family, faith, and tradition. It was such a hit, it became a natural candidate for film version—remember, this was the era of Camelot and Paint Your Wagon. Norman Jewison was the logical choice to direct, because he had experience with music and themes related to tolerance. However, he frequently had to explain he really was not Jewish, despite his name.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Jewison’s production had to entirely construct the village’s wooden synagogue, because those of its like had been entirely destroyed during the Holocaust. Ironically, the location they selected was a village in Yugoslavia, a country which no longer exists. A lot of talent contributed to
Fiddler the film, but the doc somewhat unfairly suggests it did not create any stars. It rather depends on how you define a star. Paul Michael Glaser went on to have a successful career (he even directed Running Man) and for many years Israeli thesp Topol was a household name in America (he was also in Flash Gordon and For Your Eyes Only).

Regardless, Raim and Sragow do a solid job chronicling the history of the production and putting it all into proper cultural and historical context. The recognizable voice of Jeff Goldblum also keeps the considerable narration quite lively. Raim extensively interviews Jewison and most of the primary cast-members (weirdly Glaser is the notable exception). However, probably the most interesting commentary comes from the legendary John Williams, who arranged and conducted the music.

One factoid that did not make the doc involves the song “Sewing Machine” that Bock & Harnick wrote for the show, but cut after sending it to Cannonball Adderley, who had agreed to release a jazz version of the score (because that was a thing at the time). He liked it, so he recorded it anyway. Honestly, that entire record is just terrific.

Be that as it may, if you love
Fiddler, this film will fascinate you. Even if you are just okay with the show and film, the wider cultural implications and historical connections (including a command screening for Golda Meir) should keep you interested. Recommended as a solid behind-the-scenes film doc, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen opens Friday (4/29) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.